The cliche goes that stars are born in the postseason, but truth of the matter is that the playoffs are just when we finally start noticing.
Many roundtable discussions have been had over the past couple weeks anointing Stephen Curry a superstar. While Curry’s backbreaking threes have become the bane of the Rocky Mountains’ existence, these past five games have been a mere continuation of an already-brilliant regular season.
Do yourself a favor and take a look at Curry’s per-36 minutes stats. Other than a spike in assists, what we see is a player wholly comparable to the one that showed up in the first 82 games. Curry isn’t different, we’re just invested in actually staying up late enough to watch him play.
Instead, it’s the ascendant secondary player whose late-game heroics or stalwart defensive play on the perimeter that is so often as integral if not more than the star’s contributions. We hear consistently about the Robert Horrys of the world, guys whose careers would have ended long before they did without some postseason glory.
And while that phenomenon is a bit overblown as well—Big Shot Rob is always Big Shot Rob—the disappearances of the Robert Horrys of the world can be crippling. Superstar talents can only carry a team so far, especially in a postseason so riddled with injury.
With that in mind, let’s check in with a few players who need to step up (or keep stepping up) most for their team to avoid an early postseason exit.
(Note: For a complete look at the 2013 NBA playoffs bracket, go here.)
Kevin Martin (G, Oklahoma City Thunder)
It’s become readily apparent that Scott Brooks does not have an answer for the loss of Russell Westbrook—at least for this series. We’re three games into the post-Westbrook era, and outside of a couple minuscule wrinkles, the Thunder coach has been unable to adjust on the fly.
After finishing second behind Miami scoring 110.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, Oklahoma City has dipped by over four points, per NBA.com. That would still be a very respectable top-10 rate over the entire season, more than good enough to beat most teams.
But what’s become clear is that the Thunder are struggling to stay that proficient against a bad defensive team—and putting the onus on Kevin Durant to make it happen.
Oklahoma City’s offense has never been the most, shall we say, inventive in the world. Brooks has often simply relied on his two stars to take over games, and the Durant-Westbrook pick-and-roll was an especially deadly crunch-time look. The Thunder have tried putting Reggie Jackson into the Westbrook role, and he’s done an admirable job overall.
But the Rockets don’t respect Jackson the way they did Westbrook, putting the Thunder in need of another reliable scorer—and let’s not go down the Serge Ibaka well. Ibaka is fine at what he does offensively, asking him to do any more only leads to a downtick in efficiency.
That leaves Kevin Martin, who is facing an underrated set of pressures following the Westbrook injury. As of now, he’s the only tangible piece from the James Harden trade on Oklahoma City’s roster—unless you insist on counting perpetual Gatorade fetcher Jeremy Lamb. Martin is the substitute sixth man, the dead-eye shooter who Sam Presti deemed a good enough replacement for Harden in the bench-scoring role.
With Westbrook, that role only increases. Harden was the Thunder’s secondary ball-handler and safety net for them when Westbrook went off the rails. Martin isn’t a great ball-handler so the latter is out of the question, but he needs to provide a scoring safety net for Durant, who is exerting far too much energy on both ends of the floor.
Thus far, Martin has been dreadful in three games without Westbrook. He’s scoring 10.3 points per game, but has shot a pitiful 28.1 percent from the floor, including 28.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Kevin Martin can’t be Russell Westbrook. He can't be James Harden. We all knew that. But without Kevin Martin being Kevin Martin, the Thunder run the risk of being the first team to ever lose a series when starting up 3-0.
Jamal Crawford (G, Los Angeles Clippers)
For a team that spent the entire season trying to usurp the Lakers for the most beloved team in Los Angeles, the Clippers have begun looking a whole lot like their Staples Center co-tenants. At least when we’re talking about injuries to stars.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both dealing with injuries as Los Angeles heads into Friday night’s Game 6 in Memphis with its playoff livelihood at stake. Paul has a bruised left thumb but will reportedly be in the starting lineup on Friday. Griffin, however, is a game-time decision after suffering a high right ankle sprain and sitting out much of the Clippers’ Game 5 loss, per ESPN’s Arash Markazi.
In the very best-case scenario, Griffin and Paul will start at less than 100 percent.
And while CP3 has answered the Bat-Signal every time his number has been called in this series, it’s looking increasingly likely that he’ll need a more stable Robin. Unfortunately, all he has is Jamal Crawford.
It’s infinitely easier said than done to tell Crawford “go score.”
The problem is that Crawford is utterly useless without putting the ball in the basket. He doesn’t stop shooting when the ball isn’t going down, and defense is apparently a curse word in all Crawford households across the country. (see: Crawford, Jordan for additional proof)
These are things we and the Clippers knew about Crawford. But one of the major reasons their bench was so brilliant during the regular season is that Crawford wasn’t rendered completely rudderless. He was such a force that even when Bad Jamal came out to play, teams had to respect he could combust at any minute.
Memphis doesn’t fear Crawford—at least not in the way the Clippers need them to. Lionel Hollins has done a masterful job of pegging Tony Allen early in games to throw Crawford off his rhythm, and it’s worked. Crawford has gone into a major funk in the series’ last three games, knocking down only 37.1 percent of his shots as Allen has suffocated him on the outside.
There’s no blueprint to defeating Allen. He’s the league’s best on-ball defender for a reason, a masterful combination of smarts, physicality and foot speed.
But the great thing about Crawford—at least what had been the great thing all season—was that he would render defenses equally befuddled. Perhaps only J.R. Smith hit a more varied and difficult arrangements of shots, with each look doubling as a heat check and a head-scratcher.
Crawford’s game won’t change Friday, nor will Allen’s. The shots just have to start falling for the Clippers to have a remote shot of forcing this series back to Staples Center.
Jeff Green (F, Boston Celtics)
We go from two players who desperately need to get out of a funk to one whose ascent has been critical to his team’s resurrection. The Boston Celtics, who went down 3-0, bear little resemblance to the ones that will head into Friday night down 3-2. They’ve gone from a battered assemblage of used-to-bes fighting on their last legs to a squad that many feel could join an elite class of Boston history.
The ascent’s root? Boston’s journey from turn-back-the-shot-clock putridity on offense to being just plain old bad.
Over the first three games, Doc Rivers was running a ton of offense through Paul Pierce at the top of the key. What Pierce would do from that set was mostly up to him—whether that be post-up, set an isolation or distribute to a cutter—but it became obvious that the Knicks knew how to stop Boston if the status quo was kept.
That meant making adjustments—specifically a renewed emphasis on Jeff Green’s place within the offense.
The Celtics may take on the personality of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce—gritty, defensive-minded and fight-to-the-last-breath tough—but their offensive star this series.
Oft-questioned after signing an above market value contract this offseason, only once during these five games has Green no-showed (Game 2). He’s scored 22.7 points over the other four contests, including an extremely efficient 18 on Wednesday night.
The city of Boston may wistfully remember Garnett’s gritty 16-18-5 stat line, and rightfully so. But it was Green’s eight-point run late in the fourth quarter that helped stymie the Knicks’ torrid comeback attempt.
TD Garden may be the loudest arena of the entire playoffs on Friday. Just don’t be surprised if it’s Green the fans wind up cheering for rather than No. 34 or No. 5.